One Health, One Medicine uses dogs for cancer research

Friday, March 8, 2013 | 5:13 p.m. CST; updated 7:12 p.m. CST, Saturday, March 9, 2013
In the second installment of the One Health, One Medicine forum series, researchers discussed comparative oncology clinical trials held at MU, in which dogs with cancer were treated to gain insight for future human treatment.

COLUMBIA — Dogs earned the title of "man's best friend" by helping their masters hunt and herd, as well as keeping them company.

At MU's Comparative Oncology Laboratory, they have a new duty: Helping improve the treatment of cancer.

The second installment of the One Health, One Medicine forum series, held Friday at the Stony Creek Inn, focused on comparative oncology clinical trials held at MU, in which researchers treat dogs with cancer to gain insight for human treatment.

"Our treatments on our patients today help their owners tomorrow," said Dr. Jeffrey Bryan, director of the laboratory.

As a member of the Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium, MU is one of 20 academic centers performing cancer research by treating dogs, according to the consortium's website. MU's College of Veterinary Medicine received a $5 million donation from a St. Louis-area couple last month for the research.

Dr. Carolyn Henry, a professor with the School of Medicine and the College of Veterinary Medicine at MU, said treating dogs is similar to treating humans. Researchers can use the same imagery instruments, such as MRIs and PET/CT scans,  as in human treatments, and they can also use radiation therapy.

It's better to use dogs than rodents, the most commonly used animal in clinical trials, because researchers treat dogs who already have cancer, while rodents are infected with cancer for the trials, Henry said. Dogs are also closer to the size of humans and live in similar environments.

Mitch Wasden, chief operating officer of MU Health Care, applauded the collaboration of several MU Health System departments in the animal trials. Collaboration is the "secret sauce" to success, he said.

Bryan said humor is important in assuring the pet owners that comparative oncology aims to improve the quality of life for the dogs. He said he wants to put an advertisement on a bus: "PET scans for pets? Only at MU!" and that he jokes with his researchers about doing lab tests for Labrador retrievers.

The key to improving quality of life, Bryan said, is lower doses of chemotherapy drugs and using other medications, such as anti-nausea drugs, to help the dogs feel better. Thanks to these methods, some dogs can hunt during treatment. 

"The goal of chemotherapy is that (the dogs) can resume a normal life," Bryan said. "Their whole treatment is calibrated to make them feel better."

Bryan said pet owners have two motives when they bring their dogs to him: They want the best for their dogs and they want their dogs' misfortune to bring insight that can help other dogs and humans.

"When dogs can help us make cures for cancer, they become that much better of best friends," Bryan said. 

Supervising editor is Richard Webner.

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